Norris Eppes: Your short stories often contain worlds that feel extensive enough for their own novels; the “Meritorious Life” stories come to mind. Did The Regional Office is Under Attack grow out of a short story like this? If not, how do you decide which idea to explore in a novel, and which to write as short fiction?
Manuel Gonzales: The Regional Office did not grow out of a short story idea, in fact. Although when I first started writing the opening to what would become the Regional Office, I wasn’t thinking of it as a novel idea, either. Mainly I had a character in a moment and then kept running with that moment. It didn’t take long — maybe three or four pages of writing — before I knew it wasn’t going to be a short story, though. Because the world was already, very early, too big, or, rather, my interest in the world was too big to be contained in a story. When I have a story idea, the world is almost secondary, or it’s implied as larger but what concerns me and what concerns the story is often very small, is a character, is a small set of circumstances, a small but significant desire. But also, it’s generally not a decision. I don’t look at an idea and decide — story, novel?, which should it be? The ideas come to me and they simply feel like they are what they are when they arrive.
NE: Your novel doesn’t seem concerned with violence as a subject; but there’s a heck of a lot of violence in it. How do you write a book about a surprise attack, super powered assassins, and a lethal mechanical arm without it becoming gory or gratuitous?
MG: It’s funny this kind of question — How did you do this or that? — which I get often and I’m sure other authors get as well but it’s funny because I have no real good answer for how I wrote a book about assassins and lethal mechanical arms and attacks without it becoming gory or gratuitous. It wasn’t planned, wasn’t deliberate. It wasn’t something I was thinking about when writing. I would write a scene or develop a character or push the story along and every so often, intuitively, I would think, Oh, I need a fight here, or not even that, I wouldn’t even think that, I would think, What happens next? and a part of me would answer, A fight, and I would write a fight scene. Because the violence wasn’t my concern, it never became gratuitous. If you look at, say, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, the violence is front and center and is over-the-top — except it’s not out of the bounds of what happened — and so it’s gratuitous-ness is intentional and hopes to make a point, I think. Since I didn’t mean to or want to make a point of the violence, since it was just there because moments seemed to — because of the narrative tropes I was playing with — seemed to require some action, some fighting, some cutting of people in half, that all became more background.
NE: In Chapter 13 of Regional Office, Sarah rephrases her thoughts in a way that reminds me of your short story “All of Me.” I was intrigued by this voice in both places; a style of narration where the character slowly brings the reader up to speed with what’s really going on in her head. Is that the effect you intended in these moments?
MG: I don’t know if it’s the effect I intended, honestly. (Most of the things I do I don’t know how or why I’ve done them only that they seem right and when they don’t, I take them out and put something else in until that seems right, etc.) What these sections feel like to me are the way I sometimes process moments in my own head. My own thoughts loop around, jump trains, find their way back to where I started, but with more context — so it’s less trying to bring the reader up to speed and more exploring the way we sometimes know something intuitively but then have to do the hard work of explaining to ourselves what we already have intuited but not quite accepted yet.
NE: Not many people reach for an academic journal when they want a pleasurable reading experience; but Regional Office includes chapters excerpted from a scholarly paper that tracks the downfall of the regional office. These sections remind me of the experimentation with form in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. What was the idea behind including these excerpts from a scholarly work?
MG: I love the weird jargon of scholarly papers — although to be honest, this white paper that runs through the novel is just a white paper in name alone — it hardly contains any actual jargon you’d associate with a true academic paper. Mainly, I used it as a way to get a lot of story into the novel in a way that wouldn’t require me to bog down Sarah or Rose’s narratives with that story. Originally, the novel contained four different narrative lines — Sarah, Rose, Mr. Niles, and Henry — and then I wrote the opening section and on a whim called it The Regional Office is Under Attack: Tracking the Rise and Fall of an American Institution (which, could I have thought of a more anodyne title for a white paper?), and once I did that, I set to rewriting the entire novel from scratch because how I’d set it up originally didn’t mesh as well or look as good against that opening section, and in doing this rewrite, I realized that Henry and Mr. Niles were performing a lot of the same work, so I cut out one narrative line — Mr. Niles’s — and then I realized while writing deeper that I wasn’t ever super interested in Henry’s stand-alone narrative line, that I was really interested just in Sarah and Rose, and so I cut him out, too, but then I realized a lot of Regional Office origin story and backstory had been contained in those two sections and I needed that, I felt, and so I decided to run that original white paper throughout the whole novel as a way to get in the story I needed to tell about Regional Office’s history and the revenge plot so that we’d be able to hang Rose and Sarah’s alternating narratives on something structural.
NE: The Regional Office is Under Attack doesn’t force readers to pick out a protagonist and an antagonist. Were you consciously trying to subvert the “hero/villain” idea with your novel? Especially when it vibes with genres where the “good/bad” lines are drawn so distinctly?
MG: Yeah. (Ha, what if that were my entire answer?) I think each of these characters begins with good intentions and these intentions are marred by circumstances that lead to other decisions that are still hewing to the good intentions but are further removed — in other words, most people aren’t hero/villain binaries. Most people make good and bad decisions almost equally and due to circumstances, due to context, and often don’t realize in the moment they’re making a decision that what they’re doing is either good or bad. Sarah is defending an organization that has kind of lost sight of its mission; Rose is trying to destroy an organization that, from certain perspectives, is doing as much harm as it is good — abducting girls and training them to fight the forces of darkness? Well, both groups do this very same thing. They just think the other is the force of darkness, and the other thinks they’re the force of darkness. And it wasn’t that I was trying to subvert the hero/villain idea but that I don’t really believe in it.
Come hear Manuel Gonzales on Monday, April 10th, 2016 in the Hodges Library Auditorium at 7PM. As always, the Writers in the Library readings are free and open to the public.
Manuel Gonzales is the author of the novel The Regional Office is Under Attack! and the acclaimed story collection The Miniature Wife, winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. A graduate of the Columbia University Creative Writing Program, he teaches writing at the University of Kentucky and the Institute of American Indian Arts. He has published fiction and nonfiction in Open City, Fence, One Story, Esquire, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, andThe Believer. Gonzales lives in Kentucky with his wife and two children.
Norris Eppes is an MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee.